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Red Dust

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Red Dust
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Author(s): Donald Black
Date Published: 2008/06
Page Count: 212
Softcover ISBN-13: 978-1-84677-483-6
Hardcover ISBN-13: 978-1-84677-484-3

An intimate portrait of war

There are books which report the experience of war and then there are a few that enable the reader to step into another's life to share war, both in the mind and the flesh. Red Dust is such a book. Written by a trooper of the Australian Light Horse on campaign in the Middle East during the Great War against the Ottoman Turkish empire it tells of 'mateship,’ hard campaigning and brutal conflict—often hand to hand and described in relentless detail. It also allows the reader to share the thoughts of this ordinary man—a man of his time and his country—as he struggles to rationalise the horror and futility of war, his feelings on the loss of comrades, the embryonic sense of otherness from the Imperial motherland and the loss of youth. The action takes place principally in the Jordon Valley in Palestine—a grinding stalemate of a phase in what was often one of fluid manoeuvre. Here the troops experienced fiercely hot days, freezing nights, scorpions and spiders and the ever present threat of the tenacious and respected enemy. Red Dust is a rare book in every sense and will be sure to reward all those interested in the First World War and fine writing.

A feature of the fortification of the country ahead is a number of short trenches at scattered intervals. They are fully manned and usually have a machine-gun with a German crew. These are like so many isolated forts barring our path. With morning, as we move on, we meet one of these; after a few shots it shows a piece of white cloth. We walk forward dismounted, with fixed bayonets, in full view of the trench occupants, accepting their surrender. For some reason unknown to us, when near them they turn their machine-gun on us, violating the white flag. No order is given, nor do we wait for one but plunge forward behind outstretched bayonets to gain the trench. A few seconds, bloody seconds, and it is finished; nor do we become burdened with prisoners.<br>
Farther ahead a German machine-gun, secreted behind a stone sangar, bars our passage, sweeping all the territory to right and left so that the entire column is held up. Men go forward with grenades but they do not come back; others charge it on horseback but this too is useless. Again it is tried, the horsemen approaching from two directions this time to distract the gunners, but still with no avail and a few more lives are lost.<br>
A mountain battery manned by Hindoos is brought up, the Bing Boys as we fondly term them. After the first salvo they stop to see the result, but the gun is still working. Again the battery fires, for at all costs this machine-gun must be silenced. I can distinctly see from where I lie, the flying fragments of stone from the sangar as the shells explode amongst them. The battery pauses, and for a second or more there is silence, then the gun resumes its staccato roar. The battery opens out again, and this time does not cease till the sangar is no more.<br>
It seems to me a pity that such men should perish. They knew they could not escape except by surrender, which they would not do. They did not ask quarter, but just served their gun knowing it was death; one must admire these German gunners.<br>
As we ride up I peer into the remains of the sangar. The gun is shattered with one of its crew spattered over it where he had died. A second is in pieces near by; they must have died a dozen times.<br>
This obstacle removed, we swing away and come at the gallop down the hill, not entirely escaping the fire of other scattered trenches. At its base we charged along a gully to meet a detachment that almost might purposely have been left to await us. With no thought other than to be first into the town (Amman) now so near, the objective of our previous efforts up here and for the capture of which we had all striven, we pressed forward. This detachment barred our path; so upon them we rode, some of our number falling as we passed, but the Turks nevertheless going under us to be trampled by the flying heels of our galloping horses.<br>
Again we are halted, this time by a machine-gun high above us on a hillside. As we pull in behind a knoll for cover, a figure with fixed bayonet comes careering madly down the hillside to the stone hut that harbours the gun. Its crew, temporarily occupied with us, do not perceive him till he is almost at the house; they have just time to fire only a few shots when he reaches the cover of the walls. We can distinctly see the figure creeping like a relentless shadow along the wall till it disappears around a corner. We sit breathlessly waiting to see what will be the end of this peculiar contest; a few minutes silence; we venture onward. No gun fires now; how it has been silenced we do not know, probably by a grenade.<br>
Entering the village we gallop through, and find it already in the possession of another unit, but much close fighting still occurs. On foot we scour for the un-surrendered parties, mostly in the overlooking hills, who are firing down on us. Swinging around a corner we encounter a batch coming towards us. I am so near one that I do not stay to fire, resting content by kicking him in the belly as I pass. It is all very quick and nasty, at such times one does not think but acts to the prompting of instinct, for one’s brain is never normal under such circumstances. We seek only to kill; not that we joy in that, but if we do not, it is we who will be killed; it is simply self-preservation. In things like this, little insignificant fellows become big men, men who ordinarily could not hurt a fly now kill with the utmost abandon, and take pride in doing it. It is the subconscious animal lying dormant in us that rises and dictates our actions.<br>
Down an alley we go, figures flitting by. I use my rifle from the hip like a revolver. Men everywhere, ours and Turks, some of the latter seeking shelter till it is over, when they will crawl forth and surrender; others carry the battle to us.<br>
Round a corner, I find myself in a backwash hemmed in by houses except for a narrow passage. It is a maze, I do, not know the geography of the town, nor care; really I do not know anything much, one never does at these times, everything is much a blur.<br>
I see a party of Turks drop through a hole under a house, as I pass I give them a grenade for company. I do not hear its explosion nor do I wait to hear; but it will explode; anyway, there is so much noise.